Simon Russell Beale, who knows a thing or two about Shakespearean theatre, seemed to enjoy this production of Richard III from his seat immediately in front of us.
Almost as long as Richard’s reign, this production at the Almeida didn’t have the pace of many recent productions. It did seem to have every single last line that Shakespeare penned (plumed?) but that didn’t detract from the power and menace of the piece. With an audience used to the full War of the Roses tale being built in the three plays of the Hollow Crown, this production had to carefully bring people up to speed with the monster Gloucester who was to become the tyrant King Richard III. This was elegantly achieved from the very opening scenes of the modern day excavation of Richard’s remains from a car park, complete with BBC voice over. A combination of modern day dress and mobile phones with period armour and swords gave a broad landscape on which to paint this brutal tale.
Finbar Lynch played Buckingham, Richard’s right hand thug, with a stylish authority – right up to the point he was shot in back for daring to be hesitant in ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower. A lesson for all right hand thugs who seek to promote their master above their level of competence.
And that, of course, is Richard’s great failing. He seizes power because he can. He enjoys the game of plotting against his enemies, friends and family. He uses all means, fair and foul (well, actually, foul and foul) to remove obstacles from his path to – nowhere. With no plan other than to be King, no plan to govern, no plan of action at home or overseas, and certainly no broad appeal other than to his increasingly narrow band of thugs, he simply wanted to be the King.
As is customary these days Ralph Fiennes played the ambitious Duke of Gloucester partly for laughs, at least in the first half. But the laughs were often cut short by yet another death on his murderous rise to the top. Unusually, all the murders took place in plain view, again adding to the running time but making sure no-one was left in any illusion about the depravity of the central character.
The only death scene which struck a slightly sour note – maybe the wine was off – was the drowning of the Duke of Clarence in the barrel of Malmsey. The obviously emptying empty barrel resonated, not with the gurgles of a drowning man trying to gasp for air, but the heaving breathing of an actor stuffed head first into a small barrel. Obviously it is competing with the Martin Freeman production where Clarence was drowned – very convincingly – in a fish tank but it was still a petty poor effort.
As Fiennes’ Richard gathered momentum to his thankfully inevitable destruction at Bosworth Field, friends and foe joined forces to bring this particular experiment to a merciful end. And one of the good things about this play is when the end comes it is short – nasty and brutish, but mainly short. No drawn out death speeches.
Apart from Fiennes and Lynch the standout performances came from the female leads. In the play they are threatened, bullied, beaten and raped. They have their husbands and sons murdered. But they are the constant reminder to Richard that he is vulnerable to power and they provide the driving force to the opposition which brings his short region to an end. In particular Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret command the stage.
Not the best Richard I’ve seen – Martin Freeman on stage and Cumberbatch in the Hollow Crown are difficult to beat – but certainly up there. But when Ralph Fiennes does play for laughs, whether in a serious piece or a period comedy, I occasionally get the unnerving feeling that I’m watching Rigsby from Rising Damp – a TV sitcom of a generation ago for younger readers. I was tempted to ask Simon Russell Beale if he felt the same.